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Church: A Living Conversation of Reconciliation (sermon)

September 2, 2011

I have been waiting all year to preach on this text… What I want to say is not going to be original… I’ve learnt it from John Howard Yoder [show book] – one of the sharpest and clearest Christian thinkers of the 20th century.

Today’s text is one of the most intensely practical passages in the NT for the church – which will please those who like ‘practical’ sermons (it also happens to be one of the two places in the NT where Jesus uses the word translated Ekklesia (church). So when you listen to the text today I want you to attend closely to your first impression and reaction… and I also want you to think about what kind of a vision of the Christian community it would work for. What kind of a community is Jesus thinking of when he gives these instructions.

Matthew 18:15-20

15        If your brother or sister sins,

go and reprimand that person

between the two of you, alone;

If that person listens,

you have won your brother or sister.

16           If not, take with you one or two more,

so that every matter may be established

by the mouth of two or three witnesses.

17           If the person will not listen to them,

tell it to the church;

If the person will not listen to the church either,

let such a person be to you as a pagan or a tax


18        I tell you truly, whatever you [plural] bind on earth shall

be bound in heaven,

and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in


19        Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about

anything you ask,

it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.

20        For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am

there among them.

  • What’s your first impression?
  • Have you ever been involved in a process like that?
  • What’s the purpose of these instructions?
  • Is this way of relating to a fellow Christian only the responsibility of someone sinned against? Or of every Christian?

Actually it’s very helpful to know that the most reliable ancient Greek manuscripts do not have ‘against you’… doesn’t matter if you are the victim of his or her sin or not… what matters is that he or she is your brother or sister…. which opens it up doesn’t it? I can’t say, it’s ok, I’m big enough and strong enough to get over it… because it’s not about me, in the end. This is all about what it means to be ‘members of one another’… it’s Jesus account of the community.

Perhaps before we go any further it’s helpful to talk a little bit about binding and loosing

I tell you truly, whatever you [plural] bind on earth shall be bound in heaven,

and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

We no longer talk about binding and loosing so it’s not straightforward for modern readers to know what’s meant here. And it’s made more complicated because there are two sides to binding and loosing – two aspects that can’t really be separated from each other.

The original greek (Aramaic) uses a word which was used for making a moral decision about what’s right and wrong. Like when the Rabbi’s made a ruling about what was obligatory – and you get that sense when Jesus moves from the individual people dealing with an offence to the whole community binding and loosing – reaching some conclusion about the right and wrong of the matter. To bind meaning to forbid and to loose meaning to allow. We get a sense that out of the individual issues that arise in a community, there’s a common learning going on, about what’s right and what’s wrong – that we’re on a journey of life together, and that morality is not a private matter, but one of common discernment

But it’s also clear in context and in parallel passages that Jesus is talking about forgiveness – Jesus not only claims the right to forgive sins (shocking as it was to the Jews of his day), he commissions his disciples, the community to do so also – which is as shocking to Protestants now as it was to Jews. He puts eternal matters in the hands of human beings. So to in this context to bind means to withhold fellowship and to loose meaning to forgive.

And it’s interesting to see how these two things come together in this passage. When a brother or sister does something that I believe is wrong (whether against me or not) I have an obligation to speak to that person – and in doing so I will be simultaneously discerning what is right or wrong in the matter and (at the same time) seeking to draw my brother or sister back into relationship, working for forgiveness

Let’s say for example I used certain words which someone regards are swear words, taboo words – words referring to bodily parts or bodily functions, or just words to let off steam. In using them I offend my brother or sister. In Jesus community the parties meet to talk about it. A process of reconciliation is just the way they do things. It’s not that there’s a level of seriousness when something moves from being a private matter to being a matter for the community… not at all. The criterion is, if the relationship is damaged in some way, if someone regards what I am doing as sin, then they will be concerned for me, if I’m not damaging them then I’ll be damaging my own life in some way. Sin is living how you’re not created to be. So out of the offence… or more deeply, out of the concern for the welfare of the body of Christ, one person goes to another person and challenges them, tells them straight, talks to them about the issue.

So let’s run with the swearing example. Let’s imagine someone finds my swearing offensive. And we might imagine that I don’t think that in using words like that I am doing something wrong. It may be that I defend myself, by saying that there are no taboo words or parts of the body or bodily functions that shouldn’t be talked about. In fact Christians believe all of God’s creation is good. But the point is, it needs to be addressed, because a brother or sister thinks I have sinned and there is a barrier between us, the body of Christ is being damaged.

The person offended needs to seek a way to forgive … start on a path to heal that relationship… not say in their heart ‘I forgive him’. That’s not forgiveness, that’s just forgetting.  And if we talk then we start to discern together what is right or wrong in the matter. Moral thinking is no longer abstract in this vision… it’s a part of the communities life.

To take another example. Imagine Jillian has come to the conviction that it is a Christian calling to recycle her rubbish and she notices that another member of the congregation is not doing so. What should she do, according to Jesus?

Imagine if these kinds of conversations about what it means to live as a follower of Jesus, to live before God, were a part of the life of our congregation.

Why don’t we do it? Why is it a stretch to imagine it? We can imagine it happening for a major crisis, but it becomes then quite difficult doesn’t it? Because we haven’t built up the trust in one another and common story within which we debate our life.

And if we haven’t there’s a question as to whether we are actually being that church at all.

           play Hauerwas clip

Good communities are spaces where people love one another enough that they’re not afraid of disagreement and the kind of conflicts that are necessary for the discovery of the goods that could not be discovered if you weren’t in conflict

It’s so relevant to our vision for the future isn’t it… Do we imagine becoming a community of disciples, or just people who attend formal worship and share coffee? People who are together for the sake of being together have lost the plot already.

What would it mean for us to move back from providing a religion for individuals in the privacy of their own minds, to being a living community, a living conversation of reconciliation? How would we have to organize our lives if that was our vision for the future? How would we structure ourselves for this kind of mutual accountability?

I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but the question for us is clearly not what buildings we have, but what we do together to be the community of Christ. Are we a living conversation, a community of reconciliation, a sign of an alternative way of life? Are we what Stanley Hauerwas (on the clip) called a ‘witness to the cross’?

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